U.S. nuclear regulators are demanding more information about Toshiba Corp. (6502)’s new reactor design, potentially delaying its approval for use by power companies such as Southern Co. (SO) and Scana Corp. (SCG)
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review of the AP1000 reactor, developed by Toshiba’s Westinghouse Electric Co., has uncovered “additional technical issues,” Gregory Jaczko, the agency’s chairman, said in a statement yesterday. Westinghouse “must prove to our satisfaction that the company has appropriately and completely documented the adequacy of the design,” Jaczko said.
The U.S. hasn’t approved a construction license for a commercial nuclear plant in more than three decades, and the Westinghouse AP1000 is a popular design among the power companies that want to start a new wave of reactor projects.
The NRC’s schedule calls for a decision on the AP1000’s design this year. That timetable isn’t so clear now that regulators want more information from Westinghouse, Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman, said in an interview.
“There will be some sort of delay in the certification,” Burnell said. The duration won’t be known “until we get Westinghouse’s answers and have a chance to look at them,” he said.
Westinghouse is confident the NRC’s questions won’t stop it getting the reactor certified “as expected this fall,” Vaughn Gilbert, a company spokesman, said in an interview. Southern and Scana, which each plan to build two AP1000 reactors, said they also expect their projects to be approved without delay.
The NRC wants more information about the “shield building” that will house the Westinghouse reactor and a tank on top of it that stores cooling water, Burnell said. The agency also has questions about how containment structures inside the shield building will perform under “peak accident pressures,” he said.
None of the agency’s queries stem from the reactor-safety review triggered by the partial meltdown at a Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Burnell said.
Four AP1000 reactors are under construction in China, according to Westinghouse. It’s “one of the most studied, reviewed and analyzed nuclear-power plant designs in the history of the commercial nuclear-power industry,” the unit of Tokyo- based Toshiba said in a statement on its website. The NRC’s questions are “part of the normal licensing process” and the agency should conclude the AP1000 is a “safe, robust design,” the company said.
Nuclear-industry critics seized on Jaczko’s statement as a sign the agency may be changing its mind on new reactors after the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, the worst atomic- power incident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
“This unsafe reactor design had been the cornerstone of efforts to build new nuclear reactors in the United States,” Tom Clements, a nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth in Columbia, South Carolina, said in an e-mail.
Jaczko’s demand for more information on the AP1000 design is a “welcome development,” Edwin Lyman, a nuclear specialist with the Union of Concerned Scientists based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in an interview.
“This may be a sign of that the NRC is increasing its scrutiny of certain gray areas in light of Fukushima,” Lyman said.
Shaw Group Inc. (SHAW) fell $1.59, or 4.1 percent, to $37.32 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading yesterday. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based engineering and construction company holds a 20 percent stake in Westinghouse, according to a regulatory filing last month. Atlanta-based Southern’s shares fell 35 cents to $40.47 yesterday. Scana of Cayce, South Carolina, fell 35 cents to $41.49.
The NRC is considering six applications from five U.S. power companies to build AP1000 reactors, according to Burnell. If the reactor design is approved, the agency will decide separately whether each company can move ahead with construction, he said.
The NRC’s schedule calls for decisions this year on reactor projects led by Southern in Georgia and Scana in South Carolina.
Southern doesn’t expect the approval process will be delayed, Steve Higginbottom, a company spokesman, said in an e- mail.
“We have confidence in the AP1000 technology and we anticipate receiving our combined construction and operating license by the end this year,” Higginbottom said.
Yesterday’s announcement from the NRC is “a normal part of the NRC review process” and it shouldn’t stop the Scana project from being approved by “the end of this year or early 2012,” Rhonda O’Banion, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
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